The Goethe-Institut has had a presence in Beirut since 1955. It’s time it had more space, so a new building was opened in the Lebanese capital with a big party. The new space will also be made available to Lebanese artists
DJane Rita is playing. There’s dancing in front of the stage. But the curious eyes of the more than 600 guests of the Goethe-Institut keep turning to the large screen at the edge of the party zone.
There in the dark, artfully curved letters are illuminated, sometimes in white, sometimes in yellow. As if by magic, Arabic and German words become works of written art. Michael Ang explains, “What’s in white is by us here in Beirut and the yellow words are coming from Berlin in real time via the Internet.”
“It enables you to express yourself.”
The Canadian artist Michael Ang is standing next to the so-called inflector table, where paper is inserted and illuminated from below and projected onto the screen. “When you draw on the paper, the camera takes a picture of the underside. You can’t see the hand drawing and the black ink is converted into white. Sounds simple, but it enables you to express yourself.”
An artist who calls himself Schriftzug (lettering, writing) has travelled especially from Frankfurt to Beirut for this. “Some people call it Calligraffiti. It’s an art form composed of both: basically calligraphy with a strong graffiti influence. The exciting thing about the digital story today is that we can bring together two cities that are actually very far apart. We can combine different styles. It’s a very interesting number today.”
The Lebanese Calligraffiti artist Hayat al Chaban is thrilled, saying, “It’s crazy. It’s like a meeting of the cultures today here in Beirut.” The Goethe-Institut has been promoting this bridge building between Germany and the Middle East ever since 1955. One of the oldest German cultural institutes in the world is therefore in Beirut. But at 35, its young director Mani Pournaghi stands for today’s very modern interpretation of cultural dialogue.
As he opens the new three-storey institute building in Beirut’s trendy district of Gemmayzeh, the young scene is as much a part of the occasion as the dignitaries and many intellectuals of the city. The Germans offer important support, says actor and director Omar Abi Azar from the Zoukak theatre company. “What’s so good about the Goethe-Institut is that it doesn’t question the value of the Lebanese arts scene, but commits itself when it feels that you are committed. When we deal with our own minister of culture, we don’t feel this appreciation. But if you go to Mani, the director of the Goethe-Institut, you know your project will get support.”
[...] For Mani Pournaghi it is therefore important, as he explains, “to create a space, not just a physical space, where artists can meet to enable co-productions in the best case. Of course, when I’m in Europe, in Germany, people often say, ‘You’re in Lebanon? Oh, dangerous.’ But what’s happening here in the cultural scene, in the cultural landscape, is incredible. There are various movements at the highest aesthetic level. Of course, it’s a small country, but they’re in every art sector. That’s why we try not only to work here on site, which is our chief mandate, but we also try – and this is particularly important to me – to reveal a different image of Lebanon in Germany.”
The Goethe-Institut’s regular programme also continues in its German courses, which are in great demand. From 2016 to 2017 alone, the number of Lebanese students rose by 35 percent and more than 6,000 German exams were taken. This is not least due to the fact that the nature of German classes has changed over the years, explains Alexander Kruckenfellner, head of the language department in Beirut.
Dialogue of equals
“Of course, we also try very much to incorporate this intercultural component into our courses, both the lives and the reality of the Lebanese people as well as the influence of German culture. And we make efforts to conduct this dialogue as a dialogue of equals.”
The German and international Calligraffiti artists will stay on in Beirut and, with the support of the Goethe-Institut, will work on the comeback of the legendary White Wall street art festival until 7 October. Its curator Don Karl announces, “By night we will use the projectors, by day we’ll paint in colour: once in West Beirut and in East Beirut and on the former Green Line, the front in the Civil War. Using both alphabets, Latin and Arabic, we want to paint a symbol of the city’s unity on the walls.”